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Saturday, 14 July 2012 14:47

Thomas Hardy: Opening the Conversation on Sexual Violence in 1891

By:  wendy davis


This past week I’ve been making my way through the BBC’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles series I’d taped a few years ago.  Host Laura Linney’s introduction caused me realize anew how huge a deal this work of Hardy’s was challenging not only Victorian sexual mores, but literary censorship in general.  Tess, blithely unaware of the power of her beauty and magnetism, is at once a symbol for purity, personal moral authority, and vibrant longings to better herself, but also for standing for the natural world, as though her life sprang from the Wessex countryside itself.  Hardy loathed the advent of industrialization, and made no bones about it.

Hardy’s Tess was first serialized in a magazine in 1891.  When he submitted it for publication in novel form, it was rejected by several publishers unless he’d agree to expunge the scenes that might offend more ‘delicate sensibilities’.  He used the rejections to mount a campaign against censorship; that must have been a bloody battle at the end of the 19th century.

He eventually found a publishing house in London that was owned by Americans, and the book soon became so widely contentious that Linney said that many friendships were broken over strongly-held views on the book.

The issue might best be highlighted by the subtitle Hardy added in some additions: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.

A short synopsis of the core story:

An Anglican parson had casually, if not ironically, let Tess’s itinerant agricultural salesman father know that his family’s name, ‘Derbyfield’, had been eroded over time from its original Norman ‘D’Urberville’, which name had died out due to a lack of male heirs.  ‘All that’s left is the tombs of your forebears’, he said in effect.

Father and Mother, on discovery of the possible connection to some wealthy folks a day’s journey away, were insistent that Tess present herself to them as a relative in order that the connection might prove financially advantageous to their large family.  They eventually wore down Tess’s objections to the scheme when ‘the fates’ brought near-starvation to the family.  Mum’s hopes that Tess would marry one of the gentry were in evidence; drunken Father’s imaginings weren’t so clearly spelled out.

Upon being hired at the Mansion, the libertine son, Alec, engaged in a campaign to seduce Tess; she resisted, but stayed at her job to earn enough money to replace the horse she accidentally killed, so that her lazy sod of a father might return to his work selling farm produce.

One night after some revelry in the nearby market town, Tess refused a ride back to the Manor on Alec’s horse, not wanting to encourage him one whit.  He followed the returning gaggle of Manor workers, and the besotted and calculating Alec ‘rescued’ her from a potentially dangerous situation.  This time Tess accepted the rescue-ride; along the way, he pretended to get lost in the forest, and encouraged Tess to sleep on the ground while he went off on foot to discover the way home.  The mists were heavy when he sneaked back to the sleeping Tess, lay down beside her, kissed and fondled her.  The crisis came when he was about to penetrate her; scholars still argue about what occurred.  Had she said no, but hesitated and acquiesced at the same time?  But penetrate her he did.  In the BBC version (I dunno how the Roman Polanski version handled it) she screamed in pain and seeming rejection.  Later she clearly told Alec that he had, in effect, raped her.  Her devastation was total: she was now a sullied woman, and clearly would never be fit to marry her new love, the liberal idealist Angel Clare whose quest for a pure and virtuous maiden was his highest desire.  He could love a woman of a lower class, but only if she were pure enough.

Tess walked all the way home, and found herself with child.  The babe died early on, just one more event in her life that caused her to feel that she was being divinely punished for her deeds, even though it might be in that Greek fashion called hamartia, or unwitting sin.  Hardy portrayed it differently in different scenes; sometimes with a wider angle that she was suffering karma for her forebears’ ‘sins of the father’.

For the life of me, I couldn’t remember how Hardy portrayed Tess’s narrative of the ‘sex’ with Alec it in his novel, as rape or something more ambiguous.  So, I’ve been looking into it online.  Lo and behold, there are no clear answers.  Apparently he added and subtracted scenes in different versions.

In one, Alec had drugged her with a potion, rendering her semi-conscious at the time.  In another, Alec had asked her to marry him, and staged a faux marriage ceremony with his friend playing the parson.

In the BBC movie, she admitted to her mum that she may have been slightly attracted to him, but railed at her for never having told her of the dangers men could present, nor had she told her anything about sex, so she was utterly unprepared for the encounter.  This speech was just after Mum had let her know that she should have been more careful, and thus not ruined her family’s chance at material happiness.  She even then admitted that protecting her virginity might have killed her chances at marrying a toff.  Thanks, Mum.

We can’t know what forces or influence caused Hardy to change the story, but clearly he loved Tess above all his characters, and was adamant that she was victimized, if credulous, and that her strong ethical principles were a good measure of her worthiness…and purity.

Part of my small epiphany about the importance of Tess was that in some ways he was the progenitor of the male feminist, creating a character he didn’t want to be treated as possession…a fourth-class citizen…without pushing back on the hypocrisy of the socio-religious culture that led to tragedies like Tess’s.  She was dynamic, direct, and almost flinchingly honest in the face of personal danger when expressing herself would certainly lead to negative repercussions.

Except, of course, for the one most important and key time: when Angel Clare asked her to marry him.  Even with her mother’s warnings ringing in her ears: ‘Never tell a soul about what happened to you, Tess; I know how your silly heart will tell you to be honest’…she did try to tell Angel the story.  The letter she wrote him was mislaid and he never read the tale she told him.  When she realized on their wedding day that he hadn’t forgiven her her ‘sins’, he didn’t know of them.  Oh, dear.  She struggled with her Better Angels, but sincerely might not have known the difference by then. O, desire for some happiness!  They married.

But woe, not long into their honeymoon, Angel confessed some early sexual ‘sins’ to her; she naturally forgave him everything.  In turn, she told him hers, remembering that he’d been adamant that that nothing, nothing she could ever tell him about her past would change his love for her.

He walked out on her of course, simply unable to let go of his parents’ and society’s condemnation of The Whore of Babylon.  Forced sex was not an excuse, of course, and having a child outside marriage was monstrous. That theme made its way inevitably into Tess’s consciousness.  She wouldn’t hear from Angel again for more than a year, and was too proud to appeal to his family for the help he had advised her to seek, had she the need.

She spent that year and longer working for another monster, but each time Alec showed up to find her to ‘make her his own’, having figured out that he desired her above all others, she sent him away, not wanting to ‘become his creature’, no matter what riches he offered her and her family.  But there came a point when she rejoined her family as her father lay dying, and finally died, that the family was evicted from their cottage, and were made homeless.

Alec showed up; she ordered him away again, but Mum essentially sold her to him.  Tess finally gave in.  When she discovered what her mum had done she was standing at the barred gate holding one of her D’Urberville ancestors in the tomb the parson had earlier foreshadowed to her father.  “Why am I on this side of these bars?” she cried to the sarcophagus.  The sarcophagus didn’t answer.

The rest of the novel leads the reader along with hopes and near misses at more than a few moments of transitory happiness for Tess; I won’t tell you the ending in case you want to read or watch the story.

But I will clip a few bits of James A. W. Heffernan’s paper, "Cruel Persuasion": Seduction, Temptation, and Agency in Hardy's Tess”. His comparisons and Hardy’s allusions to Milton’s Paradies Lost were very interesting, as were his footnotes, some of which indicated that Tess was a subject of legal analysis of rape, and how important Tess’s mental state was to any verdict.

[Academic critic Ellen] Rooney's probing analysis of rape and seduction in Tess deserves close scrutiny by anyone who would write on this topic. But close scrutiny of the novel itself does not fully confirm her conclusions. On the contrary, it shows that Hardy can and does represent Tess as both a desiring and speaking subject, that he endows her with agency, that she explicitly considers Alec her seducer, and that as such he is far more dangerous to her than he would be as a rapist. Lurking plainly as well as mythically behind Alec is the figure of Milton's Satan. Alec tempts Tess as Satan tempts Eve, and in spite of the enormous differences between Tess and Paradise Lost, between a world supervised by Providence and a world abandoned by it, Hardy's repeated references to the Book of Genesis and to Milton's poem prompt us to consider carefully the relation between what Tess wants and what she is led to desire, what she is and what she does. For Tess, I contend, is an agent, a heroine endowed with the power to act and choose and with the tragic power to fall — even as her purity, unlike Eve's innocence, survives.

Like many other critics of Tess, Rooney makes the heroine's purity depend on her passivity, her status as the helpless victim of rape. According to Catherine McKinnon*, whose essay on feminist jurisprudence serves as Rooney's point of departure, "objective" definitions of what constitutes rape in the eyes of the law cannot truly distinguish between rape and intercourse. A "feminist distinction" between the two, McKinnon argues, lies "in the meaning of the act from women's point of view."3 Applying this principle, Rooney argues that we cannot adequately distinguish rape from seduction by invoking the difference between equivocal and unequivocal resistance. If seduction entails complicity, and "complicity is reduced to (feminine) acquiescence," then "the passive object of seduction repeats the passive object of rape" (Rooney, p. 93). As Rooney notes, then, McKinnon herself "preserves the purity of women by seeing them as objects; sexuality is entirely the work of men and sexual women wholly victims. The (desiring) feminine subject does not exist."

All four episodes are on youtube; this is the scene in the Glade:

At any rate, I’d like to thank Thomas Hardy for rating his Tess, and kicking open the door on sexist and tragedy-producing sexual mores in Victorian England.  Some critics claim that it was a bit by way of penance for the way he’d treated other female characters in earlier novels.  It might have been so, but this was good penance, imo.

* Catherine McKinnon, whose essay on feminist jurisprudence serves as Rooney's point of departure, "objective" definitions of what constitutes rape in the eyes of the law cannot truly distinguish between rape and intercourse. A "feminist distinction" between the two, McKinnon argues, lies "in the meaning of the act from women's point of view."

(to be cross-posted at


Last modified on Sunday, 15 July 2012 08:51


[-] Obey or not obey 2012-07-15 11:47   (permalink)
This is a great change of pace, Wendy. A great read.

I remember Tess being compulsory reading in high school. And so ... I didn't read it. I've tried going back since, and there is something about Hardy's universe that I just can't bear. It's not an aesthetic judgment so much as a visceral unbearability. So bleak and despondent with no hope of any kind of redemption. Nor any sense that there is any hope of some form of transcendent reconciliation. Nothing. Not even any kind of ability to shake your fist at the world in rage, because the characters are somehow both helpless and complicit. Dunno, I obviously haven't read enough to really know. But your way of outlining the ambiguities in Tess maybe suspect my problem is something like that.

Anyway, loved this. Reading Tess so I don't have to ... again.
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[-] wendy davis 2012-07-15 13:53   (permalink)
Replying to: Obey or not obey
Can't imagine they required Tess in high school, really; were the conversations in class pretty frank? I think I read Tje Mayor of Casterbridge first, and it pissed me purple, more than depressed me. With later ones, he grew on me, though I can imagine how you might find them unrelentingly morose.

That's how Emily Bronte strikes me: sheer torture. Dark, dark, dark. I love Dickens, but his happy endings often are the worst parts of his books, imo. Wonder if publishers may have forced him to change his work for 'those of delicate sensibilities', in his case folks who hated being damned for their neglect of the poor, for instance?

Over yonder, AitchD said Hardy's contemporary, Ibsen was censored, and often knuckled. Imagine, too, a time not long ago, when women had to use male nom de plumes. I have a sweet old Georges Eliot Mill on the Floss, sweet block carvings...and I imagine how that must have rankled. Whoosh.

Not to mention kinda understanding Tess murdering Alec D'Urberville... ;o)

But I think they're morose because that's how life was so often, especially for women and the working class: no way out, really. And I did like Tess since she was so dynamic, self-possessed and honest until...she wasn't.

Thanks for reading it; a few folks read it over yonder against my expectations. |8)|
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[-] Obey or not obey 2012-07-15 14:55   (permalink)
Replying to: wendy davis
Oh I like all the ladies. Eliot, Austen, Bronte, Wharton. My gf actually made a whole graphic novel version of Wuthering Heights. Just beautiful. Then lost it when her hard drive crash. Harsh. But really, my problem is Hardy specific (it's really a guy, right?). It's funny how English literature is the only one where, if you count up a list of the greats, you really end up with half women half men. Can't say it of the french, the germans, the italians. Or the Swiss. At least historically, I haven't been keeping up with contemporary lit. It's wierd how it ended up that way. I don't know if its a social thing, women having the freedom to do it, a cultural thing, where there was more openness to a female perspective/audience, a language thing, where as some philosophers say, the language itself is less locked into a male-dominated/ing perspective...
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[-] wendy davis 2012-07-15 15:23   (permalink)
Replying to: Obey or not obey
I liked Jane Eyre as I remember, but never read any of Anne's books. Might have liked your gf's version of the Emily (she said trying to pull her fookin' foot outta her mouth). ;o)

Virginia Woolf, though I only read two.

But you do have me wondering about male/female authors in different nations. Made me remember how many of the indigenous authors I like are female, though. I'm trying to comb through Central and South America, getting lost...

I'll need to consider the possible reasons about the English you've mentioned. Hmmm.

Painters, too, seem to have a preponderance of greats (or famous, in any event, might not mean they're better, just more...well-acclaimed) among males.

Are you including poets in your math? It seems likely to hold there, too, although I'm pretty unfamiliar with poetry. Again, Native American women may rule that field.

But this, Pug, was one of the funniest things you ever uttered, imo:

(Hardy): (it's really a guy, right?) ROTFLMAO! What a scoop that would be! Hardy was really (female X)!
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[-] wendy davis 2012-07-15 18:14   (permalink)
Replying to: wendy davis
I forgot to mention my devotion to Jane Austen; just stuck in a tape of Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth, Also loved, loved...the late-night PBS series 'Lost in Austin'. ;o)

And how tragic yer gf lost her graphic novel; but how many of us have learned the hardest way about backing up our work, either on flashdrives, or external hard drives (might be a good gift for a holiday, by the by...)

'Can-Lit' (Canadian, of course) is a whole 'nother field...seem to remember so many females, our Quinn notwithstanding. ;oP

So many queer mini-crises going on here now, but language/societal/work freedom/receptivity...still intrigues me. But not tonight.

And Q didn't bring in Edgar Rice Burroughs, lol? I have some cool reprints, Qumulonimbus. Can send along some Jane, if yer interested. ;o)
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[-] Qumulonimbus 2012-07-15 17:01   (permalink)
Replying to: Obey or not obey
Also, Swiss Family Robinson - just the ONE chick!

Those Swiss. So sexist.

Good with cheese products though.
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[-] Qumulonimbus 2012-07-15 17:01   (permalink)
Replying to: Qumulonimbus
P.S. I'd kill for a Jarlsberg though. Really.
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[-] juliania 2012-07-16 09:17   (permalink)
Wendy, I just posted this on MyFdl, so will crosspost here if that's okay.
Sorry not to have commented earlier, and I hope my recommend (gladly given) will help keep this diary from disappearing, but we are indeed learning how to navigate here, so all will not be lost. I had lost my new broadband over the weekend, taught me how dependent I am on these places for news and converse as there is nothing out there otherwise. Praise to the internet and particularly forums such as these! But I digress.
It is an interesting and topical focus, Wendy, and I have to confess not the one I would have put on the tale, though I can see how it resonates in this day and age. The emphasis I would have put (not knowing the Hardy conflicts of the day) would have been on the lack of equality between man and woman, not so much on whether there was an actual rape or not. (I rather think the tale gathers momentum if it was not a rape.)
I only have a fuzzy remembrance of the series, but I thought that was also how they screened the situation. The equality is there in Tess’s mind at least, until that critical moment between her and Angel, when having heard his confession she gives hers. That, to me, was the denouement of the novel, the moment at which equality is shattered in a very real sense, so that’s the moment I concentrate on. Not being prudish, just saying the drama is there for me, not in the encounter between Tess and her seducer. To me, she has to be an equal to him there, considering herself so, though the consequences are far more serious for her than for him. And that just strengthens the authenticity of her character with what she further endures in the remorseless march of consequential hardship, much more so, in my opinion than had she been just a weak woman who was taken advantage of.
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[-] juliania 2012-07-16 09:18   (permalink)
Replying to: juliania
Even though my emphasis is a different one from your more timely one, I think it makes for good discussion, particularly as I think my earlier era equality would have been the big thing, and now very clearly that has somewhat shifted to the realization that there isn't that equality - that it is always in some sense a rape situation when a man and woman come together outside of the customs or mores of the time, because it is then the woman who is pilloried - "The Scarlet Letter" comes to mind also.

Jane Eyre, by the way, was certainly aware of the dark side of things, though she concentrated on antagonists discovering they were lovers and the villains were disposed of in satisfactory manner.
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[-] juliania 2012-07-16 09:25   (permalink)
Replying to: juliania
Well that was a Freudian slip of huge proportions, a senior moment if you like. Jane Austen it was to whom I was referring to...oh well, that's how it goes.
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[-] wendy davis 2012-07-16 09:40   (permalink)
Replying to: juliania
I'm so sorry your broadband is down; is it a dead modem? I'm trying to get Microsoft to allow me into my msn connection. Spent 40 minutes so far waiting on the phone.

I'll come back soon as I can; love the approach, but I will say for now that I believe the inequality issue permeates the entire story. More soon, and thanks for replacing 'Eyre' with 'Austen', lol! I was searching my crappy memory files there.... ;o)
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[-] wendy davis 2012-07-16 10:54   (permalink)
Replying to: juliania
I'll cross-post part of mine, too.

It’s funny, in a way, that looking into the notion of Hardy as an early feminist in creating a female character who was, in his mind, rigorously pure, even though she had sex, but also had given birth, which seemed to be an even bigger deal in Victorian England. Not being a virgin when one married could have remained either secret or undetected (as her mother said), but not as Angel indicated, ‘giving birth to what surely would be considered a monster’, or something close. And I got caught up in the Milton references, also.
I think it was the further research that caused my focus to shift to the subject of forced, or unwelcome, depending on what she felt in her sleepy state, etc., which I tried to split the difference imagining in the post. That focus-shift was partially due to Hardy’s apparently rewriting the scene, making her more of a victim with the addition of Alec giving her a draught of some sort. So that brought into the discussion whether or not Tess had agency, especially in that state. I was also intrigued that Hardy’s earlier books brought him some fire by the feminists of the day, and may have led to him creating Tess.
But she was not only punished for being forced into sex (even were she slightly attracted to Alec’s touch in the moment) with a member of the landed gentry, but vacillated between accepting that blame (the ‘unwitting ‘sin’ aspect, or the ‘sins of her forebears’ one…and railing against it.

Clearly Hardy was a bit conflicted through the book, but I really do think that he wanted her, and women in the peasant class, not to be treated with such inequality, or as ‘fourth class citizens’. He seemed aware that hers was a double whammy: of the wrong class for Angel Clare, but found despicable for her alleged ‘sins’. And yes, after he had promised her that nothing in her life could every sway his love. I can’t put my finger on why, but the only time I think she felt equal to Angel was in the moment he told her of his weekend of sex, and her forgiveness. And yes; everything blew apart for her when he reacted so cruelly, and with an exquisitely evil double standard. And apart from her letters to him, seemed to accept that she would sell her self for her family, and become ‘Alec’s creature’. Whoosh; what a scene that was, and how impossible to feel the weight lift from us, as it did for her (temporarily) when she killed him. Well, at least for me… ;o)

But discovering that academics were actually discussing the book in legal terms kinda knocked me out, so I pasted in some of those bits (legal states of mind being topical right now). ;o) And gender equality never goes out of discussion; race even less, imo.

That's all I have now in haste; too many things flying here right now.
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[-] wendy davis 2012-07-16 14:30   (permalink)
Replying to: wendy davis
Another thing I'd meant to mention was that through history, in some cultures, and seemingly feudal England, the custom of droit du seigneur reigned, the de facto law that the Lord could have first sex with a new bride. The Wiki says it may have been discredited. But I can easily imagine that a similar social concept was floating around still in Hardy's era. Alec clearly believed that he could, and would, 'own' Tess, and had an almost divine right to her, even though his family made their fortune in...chocolate, and lied about being from an old family, tra la la.... And Mum clearly was willing to sell her daughter every step of the way.

The great social Liberal Angel could make his way around the class divisions...until he found out that she was 'sullied' past any degree of purity.

Both of these Hardy was pushing back on.
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[-] juliania 2012-07-16 10:02   (permalink)
Not down now, wendy, or you wouldn't be viewing my nonsense! It did force me to 'discover' new aspects of my handmedown computer while trying various avenues - it turned out to be out of my hands completely, just a function of our little community's 'awayfromeverythingne ss' that we gladly put up with because of the benefits of isolation.

And a further benefit was my cogitation on rape vs. equality issues allowed to ferment whilst I could not comment here. I really do think the emphasis has shifted culturewise, and that makes for an interesting discussion I think.
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[-] wendy davis 2012-07-16 10:52   (permalink)
Replying to: juliania
Silly, I thought you may have been on a library computer...

Glad ya had the time to cogitate; I told Mr.wd that your comments would inevitably be better than my post. O:-)
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[-] juliania 2012-07-17 06:22   (permalink)
Replying to: wendy davis
No way, as you have all the turns of the plot, which I only dimly remember - the novel from way, way back when I too read all of Hardy with such relish for his lyrical style, and the tv drama somewhat more recently. So all I was going on was my memory - serving up the moment between Angel and Tess confessing to one another, so I went with that.

A recent Queen thingie on PBS made the observation that Queen Victoria really set the stage for Victorian morality in her home life - a new example of royalty after some rather seamy ones that came along with empire so got imprinted rather dictatorially.

The theme does however arch back right to Biblical literature - not just Milton (I wrote my senior thesis in college on 'Paradise Lost' incidentally) but right back to Genesis, where there are not just the one story of the creation of Adam and Eve but two in parallel.

The one is the story we know about the apple and all, but the other just starts with 'a mist was on the ground' and ends 'male and female, created he them.' My thought is that the equality/inequality issue is there from the getgo.
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[-] juliania 2012-07-17 06:28   (permalink)
Replying to: juliania
Should have said up there "a new example of royalty that came along with empire so got imprinted rather dictatorially, after some rather seamy ones."

And everyone - everyone! - should have the advantage of the kind of education I got, so similar things would be popping into everyone's heads and the world would be able to be creatively and lyrically transformed.

Thank you, wendy, for your transformative posts!
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